Practical Communication

When Talk Turns to Money, Tread Lightly

I could blame it on tough financial times, but money has probably always been difficult for people to discuss. For most of us, how much we have, how we choose to spend it, and whether we’re having financial difficulties, are all very personal. Revealing this information can make us feel vulnerable to other people’s judgment and can affect our self-esteem.

Additionally, no matter our age, most of us don’t want to appear different from friends, colleagues, or others, because our financial situation isn’t the same as theirs.

Unfortunately, whether we want to or not, sometimes we have to talk about money. We might want to talk with a friend about why she no longer wants to go to lunch. A teacher might have to talk with a parent about why a child doesn’t have school supplies. A business owner might have to talk with a customer about why he hasn’t paid an invoice.

Regardless of the situation, here are some ideas for discussing money when you’re the one who needs to initiate the conversation.

Don’t discuss a family’s finances with their children.

When I was a board member of one of my daughter’s sports teams, a team representative’s sideline discussion with a child about an unpaid monthly training fee turned into a threat of a lawsuit by his parents.

A friend who is a teacher ended up in a heated conversation with a parent after discussing the family’s financial difficulties with a child. The conversation started innocently enough, with the teacher asking the child why he didn’t have his art supplies. The child replied, “We can’t afford them,” and the teacher continued by asking whether another family member could buy them, etc.

If you’re a teacher, coach, team rep, scout leader, or whatever your role– when it comes to money, don’t discuss it with your charges. Even if the child brings it up, simply end the conversation and take it up later with the child’s parent.

Start the conversation by stating the problem.

You might say to a friend, “I’ve missed you. We used to go to lunch all the time. Why don’t we go anymore?”

A teacher might say to a parent, “Michael needs the XYZ brush set for art class, but he hasn’t brought it to class yet.”

A business owner might say to a customer, “I’m calling about the July invoice. We usually receive payment from you within 30 days. However, it’s been more than 90.”

After stating the problem, wait for a response.

Be patient. Don’t interrupt or “help” people by finishing their sentences. Simply remain silent and let people find their own words and decide what they want to say. Then, based on what you hear, you can decide where to take the conversation next.

Don’t interject your assumptions or judgments.

Don’t say, “If you don’t have the money, just tell me, its okay.” Not only could you be wrong, but your assumption could be very embarrassing to the other person.

Additionally, never present your judgments about the person’s financial priorities or mismanagement. A comment like, “Well if you can afford a new car, why can’t you ______?,” is like pouring gasoline on a fire. Most people don’t take kindly to others’ telling them they don’t have the “right” priorities and will get very defensive.

After the person responds to your statement of the problem, ask for, or offer alternatives.

Whether you ask for alternatives or offer them, is based on your judgment of the situation and more importantly, the person’s response to your statement.
If your friend flat out says, “I can’t afford to eat out as much,” you might offer the alternative to get a cup of coffee or go for a walk instead.

However, it’s probably not a good idea to say, “Why don’t I just pay for lunch? I can afford it.” or “How about I pay for lunch, and then you can just pay me back a dollar a week?”

Be very cautious that the alternatives you offer aren’t insulting to the other person. When in doubt, ASK for alternatives instead.

For example, If a parent is angry or defensive about paying for art supplies, you might say, “For Michael to be successful in this course, he needs these supplies. What can we do to ensure he has the tools to be successful?” This puts control in the parent’s hands. You’re not making assumptions about the family’s finances, just focusing on what the child needs.

If your client admits to financial difficulties, or as a client once told me, “I pay my ‘big’ vendors first before you little guys,” you could state your own reality and then ask for alternatives.

“I understand wanting to pay off bigger creditors first. However, I’m in a similar situation to you. I have bills to pay and rely on my customers’ payments to meet my financial obligations. What can we do to ensure we both meet our obligations?”

In this situation, you could also offer suggestions if you have them, “Would it help if I invoiced you more frequently, so the invoices wouldn’t be as large?”


The bottom line is, discussions about money can be very touchy and there’s no perfect way to handle them. However, using the techniques above can help reduce defensiveness in the other person and can begin to help you work together toward a solution.

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